Variation, fitness and fielding ahead of the World Cup, 1999

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slowie: the evolution of one-day strategy

Micky Stewart

Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was my privilege to play in the Surrey side with the late Bernard Constable, one of the most knowledgeable cricketers I have known. He was a real professional, with great respect for the game, but was never really happy unless he had something to moan about. If anyone ever declared against us and set a target of around 90 runs an hour, you knew how Bernie would react: "What kind of declaration is that supposed to be then?" he would demand loudly.

A fair asking-rate in those days was thought to be 80 runs an hour. All targets then were set against the clock: the number of overs was hardly ever mentioned, although the average was around 20 per hour. Bernie was a free scorer himself, but he still expected a good three hours to chase 250, about four runs an over. And yet today's cricketers will gladly chase five an over in any form of cricket. Over shorter periods, six an over is thought reasonable, and seven or eight or even more possible.

My first year as captain of Surrey was 1963, the start of what became the Gillette Cup, when teams had 65 overs to bat - yet 250 was passed only five times. In 1969, the first year of the 40-over Sunday League, Lancashire's highest score was 204, with a run-rate all season of barely four an over. And they were the champions. One-day cricket created a different set of demands from those of the longer game. These were understood only slowly, and players are still adapting to them today.

Many of the tactical innovations, however, are not new ones. To begin with batting, the role of the anchor-man existed long before the one-day game. And the idea that one player should bat through, allowing others to take risks, was one of the very first one-day strategies to emerge. It is fine as long as the anchor-man's scoring-rate gradually accelerates throughout the innings, and he does not get bogged down.

The term pinch-hitter has only recently been borrowed from baseball, where it means a substitute batter. In one-day cricket it means the promotion of a hard-hitting batsman up the order, especially to take advantage of the rule allowing only two fielders outside the circle in the first 15 overs. Again, the idea is not new at all. Surrey would promote Arthur McIntyre during run-chases in the 1950s; Sussex later did the same with John Snow - long before the 15-over rule. Soon after it came in, England used Ian Botham as opener towards the end of the 1986-87 World Series in Australia, and again in the 1992 World Cup, with qualified success. Now players have become specialists in the role.

The skills acquired in one-day cricket can feed through into the longer game. During my playing years, Peter May and Jim Parks stood out as players who would regularly explore the aerial route over extra cover. Nowadays it is a stroke employed by many batsmen. But I cringe when I see it attempted against off-spinners on a turning pitch. Running between the wickets and rotating the strike have both improved enormously. As England team manager, I sat down with the captain, Graham Gooch, to discuss how to improve this aspect of the game. I then discovered from my statistics that Graham himself was near the top of the league for dot balls. He hit so many boundaries that this had not been obvious to either of us.

Many batsmen now try to go for big shots all the time. My own preference is for controlled aggression from the first ball of an innings, using all the skills, from perhaps having to play a maiden over to positive running between the wickets, good placement of the ball between fielders and crisp striking to the boundary. This formula, put together in partnerships, usually produces winning totals. I am all for innovation to produce these totals, including the reverse sweep, as long as those putting it into practice have worked long and hard at it before playing it in the middle.

After that first Gillette Cup, Wisden noted that spin bowlers were normally despised in one-day cricket. And, as the game developed, those who did play usually concentrated on a leg-stump line with a quicker pace, little spin and a flat trajectory. Pat Pocock and John Emburey were very successful one-day bowlers through adopting these tactics. Outstanding bowlers though they were, it was detrimental to their effectiveness in the longer game, especially in their ability to bowl a more attacking line to take wickets. To counter the leg-stump line ploy, the Australians were the first to introduce the restriction on leg-side fielders: only five allowed. Before that, the six-three field was the norm, and at times seven-two was used.

Back in the 1960s, the line adopted by pace bowlers was no different than it is today i.e. off stump and just outside. Too much width has always been taboo, and very good bowlers have often held the ball across the seam if they could not control their direction. For some bowlers, such as Allan Donald, this problem has increased since the introduction of the white ball. After the initial onslaught, the length adopted was usually either very full, to strike the toe of the bat, or a fraction short of a length to hit the splice. Again, this has changed very little.

What has changed is the much greater emphasis on the use of variation of pace by the quicker bowlers, and regular use of the slower ball, the slowie. Again good control is paramount: an early exponent was Steve Waugh, when he was in his bowling prime. He could hit the pitch really hard when he wanted to, but he also had great control of the slower ball, which was particularly useful when the slog was on towards the end of an innings. In the early days, the usual tactic was a succession of straight yorkers, but as the batsmen became more effective at making room to hit full-length deliveries over the off side, pace variation was introduced to confuse the striker. Hence the more common use of the slowie. Spin bowlers also vary their pace more in one-day cricket these days, and the restriction of fielders on the leg side has encouraged them to revert to variations of spin and flight. There are also bowlers whose whole method rests on bowling as slowly as possible: this only works on a very bland surface, and on a pitch with any pace in it they can be murdered.

Of course, unless all the bowlers are supported by the highest-quality fielding, no side is going to be an effective one-day unit. Limited-overs cricket has improved all areas of outfielding over the years, and the longer game has benefited too. Much more practice time is spent working at fielding, and this, combined with a greater emphasis on general fitness, has produced higher standards. It was nearly ten years ago, before the England team went to the West Indies in 1989-90, that I introduced a general fitness programme for the touring party. Most of the media, and others in the game, referred to Gooch and myself as the tracksuit regime. But even then we were playing catch-up with the Australians and West Indies, who had been running similar programmes for some time.

I know that the current England coach, David Lloyd, and his staff have now spent hours and hours on fitness and fielding. But since the South Africans have come back into the fold, I believe they have overtaken the Australians as fielders, and Jonty Rhodes has taken fielding on to a different plane, developing into a role model for budding young cricketers everywhere. He is not a freak: there is no reason why others cannot aspire to be as good.

In the old days, fielding, and especially throwing, was sadly neglected in England. Not so now. Many hours are spent practising both old and new skills, the sliding pick-up and the baseball throw amongst them. It is only four years since I first contacted a baseball coach and got him to work with the England Under-15s at Lilleshall. There was a huge improvement in half an hour.

The Australians Neil Harvey and Norman O'Neill were throwing the ball baseball-style years ago. The method is that the elbow has to be at least level with, or preferably above, the throwing shoulder. This ensures that all the joints involved are revolving in the same direction as the throw, so reducing the injury risk and producing a stronger, more accurate result. It is now included in our national coaching programme at all levels, and has also been introduced at a number of counties. I hope that I will never again hear that overseas cricketers throw better than the average English player because they grew up in a hotter climate.

In Surrey's very first Gillette game at Worcester, 36 years ago, Bernie Constable said to me: "We've got a lot to learn about this game. We are still learning." And by the time the 1999 World Cup is over, we will doubtless have learned even more.

Micky Stewart was captain of Surrey when the Gillette Cup started in 1963. He subsequently became the club's cricket manager (1979-86), England team manager (1986-92) and ECB director of coaching (1992-97).

© John Wisden & Co